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Could Tunisia be a startup nation?

Could Tunisia be a startup nation?

The Kauffman Foundation yesterday released its 2011 national Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, showing a 5.9 percent drop in U.S. startup activity from 2010. Not so in Tunisia, according to Mondher Khanfir, an entrepreneur in Tunis who recently co-launched Wiki Start Up, the country’s first startup incubator:

"After the revolution, my friends and I wanted to work on innovation, so we built an incubator to create seed funds to make projects happen … We launched last summer, and right now we have 15 startups and a portfolio of $20 million, but our capacity is 30 startups and we’re looking to raise funds here in Tunisia and internationally."

Most of Wiki Start Up’s entrepreneurs, he added, are young locals.

"We have two coming from the Diaspora, from Europe and the U.S., but the other 13 were started by Tunisians based in Tunisia, and they’re all under 40."

The impressive list of sectors that Wiki Start Up represents includes energy, biotechnology, agribusiness, audiovisual engineering, and other knowledge-based fields. Khanfir says he is optimistic about the future and does not expect the political climate to effect entrepreneurial growth in Tunisia.

"The question is not the stability of the country or the region because we want to work more in the international marketplace. Things are getting more and more stable in Tunisia, and our early-stage startups are not affected by whatever turbulence and volatility there is now because we’re working for the future. Tunisians are very entrepreneurial."

So who best embodies the Tunisian spirit of entrepreneurship?

"Mohamed Bouazizi was an entrepreneur, and he set himself on fire because he was not respected as one. He was a small entrepreneur, and he didn’t have written permission from the Ministry of Commerce to act as a merchant, but what we need to do is take people who operate in the black economy and put them in the white one. For the last 20 years, the regime failed to promote innovation."

The U.S. State Department is already getting in on the entrepreneurial activity in Tunisia through its partners for a New Beginning program: the U.S.-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO). In early November 2011, PNB-NAPEO brought a group of U.S. entrepreneurs and early-stage investors to Tunisia to "foster and deepen relationships … and showcase local talent." It seems that the Kauffman Foundation is also keen on investing in Tunisia’s entrepreneurial future: In late November, it sponsored a Global Entrepreneurship Week in Tunis.

Tunisia may have only just begun to build its post-revolution economy, but it’s already on track to become a regional startup nation.